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Patti Smith – Horses – Classic Music Review

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The famous Mapplethorpe portrait is worth it by itself, but what’s inside is even more special. Click to buy.

I know that Patti Smith is a polarizing figure, but I had no idea how divisive she can be until I went home to visit my parents last weekend.

I’ll often call mom and dad when I’m getting ready to do a review to get their thoughts and capture their memories of records that hit the airwaves before I was born. Patti Smith had been on my short list for some time and I’d started listening to Horses and Radio Ethiopia during my stay in Sweden. Usually I visit my parents at the tail end of a vacation, but if you read my erotic blog, you know that I had already set the final days aside for l’amour, so I flew down to Nice the following weekend to bond with mom and dad.

It was Saturday night and we were hanging out in the living room after dinner, chatting away, when I said, “Hey, I’ve got a Patti Smith review coming up. Thoughts?”

The entire room seemed to go dark. The color vanished from the faces of both parents. The silence that descended on the room felt like Monty Python’s 20-ton weight.

“What the fuck?” I said, by way of ferreting out an explanation.

My father took a deep breath and said, “The biggest fight of our life started with Patti Smith.”

“Why? What happened?”

My mother interrupted in French, “Parce que ton père était un con insensible.

My dad managed to understand the keyword. “Hey, it’s been forty years and you’re still calling me an asshole over this?”

My mother responded with venom, “Va te faire foutre.”

My dad was about to tell her to go fuck herself right back but I cut him off at the pass. “Stop this shit! Both of you! Just tell me what the fuck happened!”

“We had a disagreement over the . . . artistic value of Patti Smith,” my father explained, diplomatically. My mother was about to launch another assault, but I stood up and said, “You’ll get your turn! Shit! You’re supposed to be the parents! I’m the kid! I shouldn’t have to make you behave!” I took a deep breath. “Maman, have a drink. Dad, go on.”

My dad started, stopped, stuttered and finally spat out what precipitated the crisis: “I thought she was weird.”

My mother then launched into a tirade of foul French slang that even I couldn’t keep up with. I raised my hand for silence and she lit a cigarette, huffing and puffing as I interrogated my insensitive father.

“You thought Patti Smith was weird? What happened to all that 60’s enlightenment, that increased tolerance, that ‘anything goes’ philosophy? How could anybody seem weird to an ex-hippie?”

“Maybe ‘weird’ was the wrong word to use.” My mother said “No shit” in English and I silenced her with the evil eye.

“Go on, dad.”

He had the look of a third-rate hood afraid to rat out the boss but plunged forward anyway. “We saw her on Saturday Night Live and I just couldn’t believe how shitty she was. She couldn’t sing worth shit, she dressed like a man and she was as ugly as fuck. I thought she was a phony trying to pass herself off as an artist, messing with one of the classics and the whole thing just pissed me off. So I said so.” He paused. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

My mother exploded with a barrage of invective, and in all the cacophony that followed, one of her outbursts stood out and crystallized the issue for me. “If she had looked like Debbie Harry you would have felt differently.”

“Sounds like Patti Smith uncovered some latent sexism in you, dad,” I observed.

My mother shouted “Yes!” My dad knew I’d caught him red-handed and he fessed up. “Yeah, I think I was experiencing my own conservative backlash, I’ll admit.” He paused. “We worked it out, though, didn’t we, Nique?”

Maman tsked and said, “Yes, you gave in after I wouldn’t let you fuck me for a month!”

*****

You’ll find the phrase “beyond gender” in the liner notes for Horses, a concept that makes human beings very, very uncomfortable. Our expectations concerning gender are deeply rooted in the mating ritual, centuries of gender separation and eons of cultural expectations about the roles of men and women. Despite some legal progress in First World countries, the majority of people in the world today fear and despise homosexuals, especially homosexuals who dabble in the fashion norms and behaviors of the opposite gender. Transgender types remain on the outer fringes of all societies, even in places where they have legal protection. People like men to be men and women to be women, based on deeply-rooted cultural definitions and the repressive strictures of every major religion.

I experienced the issue of gender expectations just last month when I reposted pictures of me on Twitter, some showing me with long hair and a couple with me in the short do I adopted this year to survive Paris summers. The men exclusively “favorited” my long-lock pictures, while the women clearly favored the short look. On one of my short-hair shots, one guy commented “I don’t think so,” while a woman commenting on the same pic said, “You are incredibly beautiful.” Somehow cutting my hair altered perceptions of my sexuality, making me less “feminine-looking,” and therefore less attractive to men and perhaps less threatening to women.

I have also noticed that since I cut my hair, I get far less attention from men, especially when I go clubbing dressed in a full leather outfit. It’s like they look at me now and assume I’m a butch lesbian, and when they encounter me, they kind of tiptoe away. A woman whose appearance contains too many echoes of male style and fashion is intimidating and off-putting.

Unlike me, Patti Smith is “sexually normal” and doesn’t swing from both sides of the plate. As she explains it, “I always enjoyed doing transgender songs. That’s something I learnt from Joan Baez, who often sang songs that had a male point of view. No, my work does not reflect my sexual preferences, it reflects the fact that I feel total freedom as an artist. On Horses, that’s why the sleevenote has that statement about being ‘beyond gender’. By that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want.”

She must have known that such a stance would frighten people and piss them off. It’s one of the reasons I have always admired Patti Smith: she’s got balls, metaphorical balls.

Horses presents challenges to the listener beyond the gender-bending artistic stance. When she recorded it, she was a poet first and a musician second; Horses consists more of poetry set to music than integrated poetry and music like Bob Dylan’s work. You can sing along to “Desolation Row” (though I don’t know why anyone would want to), but you can’t sing along to “Birdland.” Patti Smith brought the poetry slam into the recording studio, and while that development did not transform legions of poets into recording artists, it demonstrated new expressive possibilities that later artists like Ani DiFranco and Mary Lambert would use to their advantage.

Horses is a one-of-a-kind experience, a remarkable work by a very courageous woman. It is not background music but music that demands that you sit and listen carefully. Patti’s voice takes some getting used to, but she is always expressive, often powerful, and at times almost lovely. I fully endorse my mother’s observation: if Patti Smith had been eye candy, her work would have received greater acceptance. On the other hand, if she had been born a natural beauty, she would have had layers of expectations to deal with that might have distorted the beautiful person inside.

*****

Horses opens with “Gloria,” one of the greatest covers ever conceived. Most covers are pedestrian remakes of songs that an artist falls in love with but never really makes it his or her own. Notable exceptions include The Beatles’ version of “Money,” where John, Paul and George transform Barrett Strong’s street-smart cynical view of life into a Dionysian tribute to the scintillating pleasure of wallowing in dough; and nearly anything Billie Holiday touched when she was on her game. But both The Beatles and Billie took the songs as they were and enhanced the existing structure with new meaning through different phrasing; Patti Smith did a full-scale reconstruction with her version of “Gloria,” deconstructing the original and surrounding it with a poem (“In Excelsis Dio”) about individual liberation from cultural norms.

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” is the line that opens and closes the poem. Patti uses this sacrilegious break from tradition to emphasize that she alone is responsible for her sins, her choices and her existence: “People say ‘beware,’ but I don’t care/The words are just rules and regulations to me.” She takes pride in this stance (as would Sartre and Camus) as she walks into a party where she imposes her credo (“I’m movin’ in this atmosphere, well, anything’s allowed”). Obviously the other party-goers are more conventional, leaving her in a state of existential boredom until . . . she spots Gloria:

And I go to this here party and I just get bored
Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing

Humpin’ on the parking meter, leanin’ on the parking meter
Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling and then I’m gonna make her mine
Ooh, I’ll put my spell on her

Here she comes, walkin’ down the street
Here she comes, comin’ through my door
Here she comes, crawlin’ up my stair
Here she comes, waltzin’ through the hall

In a pretty red dress
And oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna uh, unh, make her mine

The “uh-unh” onomatopoeia is frigging inspired, both from a metrical standpoint and as a vivid expression of untethered lust. The clock strikes midnight, the witching hour where we women seek fulfillment in the dark arts, providing further confirmation that she is free from “rules and regulations.” She is primed to violate taboos and “take the big plunge”:

And oh, she was so good and oh, she was so fine
And I’m gonna tell the world that I just uh, unh, made her mine

And I said darling, tell me your name, she told me her name
She whispered to me, she told me her name
And her name is, and her name is, and her name is, and her name is
G-L-O-R-I-I-I, G-L-O-R-I-A!

Memories of the experience with Gloria simmer just below the surface as she visits a stadium where “twenty thousand girls called their names out to me” but she has no interest in them. Her eyes wander to “the big tower clock,” an ironic phallic symbol that reminds her of the experience with Gloria at the witching hour. After reliving her uh-unhs with Gloria, she hears the clock tower pealing in celebration, a sign that the choice she made to follow her passions and ignore the taboos was the best possible choice she could have made:

And the tower bells chime, ding dong they chime
They’re singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”

The musical arrangement supports the structure by modulating speed and intensity in sync with the poetic rhythm. The spare opening of piano, bass and Patti’s introspective vocal opens up as soon as she makes her declaration of independence, gathering steam and increasing in both speed and intensity as the moment when Gloria approaches, peaking on the famous chorus. After a feint that sounds like the band is going to ease up, they resume and even amplify the intensity as Patti starts to conjure up images of the Gloria experience. The final lines are wickedly delivered over a collapsing tempo, a collapse that ends when Patti gives us the vocal version of a wink in the way she phrases “but not mine,” giving the band the cue to let it fucking rip. “Gloria” is a multiple orgasm set to music, a glorious (pun intended) statement of individual liberation and a subtle reminder that yes, we still burn witches to this day, metaphorically speaking.

I should note that my interpretation is very, very different from one I read on NPR, where the guy who wrote the review insisted that Patti was playing the role of a man in “Gloria,” a man relishing in his depravity. I could always be wrong, but then again, perhaps the reviewer missed the “beyond gender” tagline. If I’m correct, it confirms my perception of white American liberals as guilt-ridden people who overcomplicate the issues because then they don’t have to do a damn thing.

In “Redondo Beach,” Patti highlights the very human tendency to call up disaster movies in our heads when we’re feeling guilty or insecure about something. In this case, she’s recalling an incident when she and her sister got into a spat at the Chelsea Hotel and her sister left her behind without a word. Patti imagines her sister “washed up on Redondo Beach,” of all places, an environment as far removed from the literary reputation of The Chelsea as one could imagine: a Southern California paradise of surfers, beach volleyball and tanned wannabe starlets. Over a reggae beat, Patti works with incongruous images to paint a surrealist picture:

Down by the ocean, it was so dismal
Women all standing with shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was looking for you

Everyone was singing, girl is washed up
On Redondo beach and everyone is so sad
I was looking for you, are you gone, gone?

The reggae background enhances the incongruity, and is worth listening to all by itself, especially Ivan Kral’s melodic, laid-back bass runs. I have to say I don’t really care for Patti’s vocal approach on this track, which comes across as a bit too mopey.

“Birdland” is described by Patti as her “greatest experience, as performer, on Horses.” The poetry is an improvisation inspired by a segment from Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams, a memoir of his father, psychologist Wilhelm Reich. In the segment, the young Reich imagines his dead father coming to get him and take him a way in a black spaceship. The progressive refrain of “you are not human,” “I am not human,” “we are not human” establishes Patti’s core theme of feeling like a stranger in a strange land: “That’s really talking about myself. From very early on in my childhood—four, five years old—I felt alien to the human race. I felt very comfortable with thinking I was from another planet, because I felt disconnected—I was very tall and skinny, and I didn’t look like anybody else, I didn’t even look like any member of my family.” The feeling of being different is such a common human experience, shared by both the artist and the socially-repressed, that it’s a wonder that any of us feel part of the human race; in one sense, “Birdland” is about our unity in feeling alien to others and to ourselves. The stream of consciousness that forms “Birdland” is not as random as it may first appear; the color black dominates, both as the obvious symbol of death but also a symbol of rising hope and rebirth in the images of the black ship. That hope morphs into hope-through-defiance in the “animation sequence”:

He’s gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation
It’s all gonna split his skull
It’s gonna come out like a black bouquet shining
Like a fist that’s gonna shoot them up
Like light, like Mohammed Boxer
Take them up up up up up up

The symbol of “Birdland” itself has multiple meanings, beginning with young Reich’s sad discovery that the alien ship coming to his rescue turned out to be a flock of ravens. Patti allows that image to stand, but then imbues the young boy with the power to change it in the animation sequence: “I am helium raven and this movie is mine.” In that sense, “Birdland” is a place where we choose to accept reality or to change it. The obvious connection is to the famous jazz club, named in honor of a deified black musician whose music seemed to come from another world. While the poetry lacks the discipline of some of her other works, the intent was to improvise, just like Charlie Parker playing in the early morning hours at Minton’s. As it is, “Birdland” is a compelling, rich improvisation and Patti’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing.

“Free Money” gives Patti the opportunity to create a less gruesome fantasy in the form of winning the big lottery jackpot. The music opens with a melancholy pattern played on piano, but as the dream takes hold, the entire arrangement shifts to the speed and frantic drum rolls of high-speed punk. The insistence on remaining in a minor key makes a sad contrast with the dreams of unimaginable wealth . . . which I believe is the point. People who believe that winning the lottery will solve all their problems are as naïve as children who believe that a fat old guy really does squeeze his way down chimneys every Christmas.

One of the more popular songs on Horses is “Kimberly,” a tale of big sister getting acquainted with the newborn little sister. Although I’ve never had a sibling, I had friends who did, and I don’t know any who did not experience seriously mixed feelings about the addition to the family. Kids aren’t as half as dumb as adults think they are, and when an adult tries to make the “you’re going to have a sister or a brother to play with” pitch, children instantly divine that something is up. Patti captures all the conflicting feelings that come with the experience, but the existential resolution is both touching and oh, so human:

Oh baby, I remember when you were born
It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly
And I rolled in the grass and I spit out the gas
And I lit a match and the void went flash

And the sky split and the planets hit
Balls of jade dropped and existence stopped
Stopped, stop, stop

Little sister, the sky is falling
I don’t mind, I don’t mind
Little sister, the fates are calling on you

I was goin’ crazy, so crazy, I knew
I could break through with you
So, with one hand I rocked you
And with one heart I reached for you

That bond was further reinforced when a curious incident happened: “We lived across the street from an old abandoned barn that got hit by lightning shortly after Kimberly was born. I went outside and I was holding her, watching this barn in flames. Hundreds of bats lived in it, and you could hear them screeching, and see bats and owls and buzzards flying out.”

So, I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violet, violent sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me

Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as that lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

What vivid imagery! All turns out for the best, and Patti is no longer a “misplaced Joan of Arc” but a good, loving sister:

The palm trees fall into the sea
It doesn’t matter much to me
As long as you’re safe, Kimberly
And I can gaze deep into your starry eyes, baby

Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Looking deep in your eyes, baby
Into your starry eyes, oh

Patti slips into slurry baby talk on the fade, in complete contrast to her hard-ass punk poet persona. While her approach to music and poetry may seem unconventional to the casual listener, this is a woman who, despite her feeling that she doesn’t belong here, is far more human than she might like to admit. There are even moments in “Kimberly” where her voice takes on an unusually sweet beauty, another unexpected delight of the song.

“Break It Up” was inspired by a dream Patti had about Jim Morrison, where she saw him half-encased in marble in his role as dead rock icon. If so, the thread to that inspiration is very thin, as the lyrics contain no reference to Morrison, marble or death; what I hear is the story of an encounter with the opposite sex where the desire to become one is depicted in the physical manifestation of ripping the skin open to realize true closeness. “Break it up” in this context means to break the barriers that get in the way of deep intimacy; it is a cry of deep longing to be rid of one’s separateness. What I love about this song its soul-rock feel and a more prominent role for Lenny Kaye, whose lead guitar counterpoint is simply marvelous. It’s one of the relatively few songs on Horses where the band asserts its presence, something that will become the norm on much of Radio Ethiopia.

That relatively short number is followed by another lengthy opus, the three-part piece called “Land.” Like “Gloria,” the poetry is sandwiched around a classic tune, in this case “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but unlike “Gloria,” the connection between the poetry and the classic is more tenuous. The first part, “Horses,” describes a brutal male-t0-male rape with shocking imagery and a frantic, on-the-edge vocal from Patti; the final passage, “La Mer(de),” is where Patti makes a connection to Jimi Hendrix, to whom Patti dedicated the piece. The links to Hendrix can be found in the layered, multi-tracked lyrics (“In the sheets/there was a man/dreaming/of a simple/rock ‘n’ roll song”) and in certain musical similarities to “1983 (a Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. “La Mer(de)” also harkens back to “Gloria” by repeating the line about humping parking meters. Throughout the piece, there are random references to Patti’s poetic hero (and mine), Arthur Rimbaud, tossed together with references to the early 60’s dance crazes cited in “Land of a Thousand Dances”:

I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go rimbaud go rimbaud go rimbaud)
And go johnny go and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi . . .

If all this sounds like an unholy mess to you, I completely understand—“Land” is manifested chaos. While you can argue that the poetry could have been more disciplined (like Rimbaud) and I would nod my head in agreement, I would also tell you that out of all the tracks on Horses, this is the one I would have given anything to see in live performance. Patti’s performance is breathtaking, daring and relentlessly intense, and the band follows her churning peaks and valleys like the great jazz pros who learned to meld with Billie Holiday’s more subtle but equally complex approach to vocalization. Patti’s frantic, semi-stream-of-consciousness attack creates a feeling of excitement in me that is close to the near-delirium I used to feel when bashing about in the mosh pit. The best way to listen to “Land” is to suspend your structural needs and just fucking ride with it.

The more conventional tribute to Jimi Hendrix is found in the album’s closer, “Elegie,” which Patti recorded on the anniversary of his death. The melodic progression is the most complex and interesting of all the songs of Horses, and the relatively quiet background of bass and piano with splashes of slide and lead guitar sets a dark, rich and fitting background for Patti’s elegiac vocal. My favorite part is a brief passage after the second verse when Patti goes into a wordless vocal alternating ooh and aah, which is as beautiful as any of Kate Bush’s flights of fancy. The solemn ending line, “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” is another borrowing from “1983 (a Merman I Should Be).” It is an exceptionally strong closer to one of the most unique records ever made.

The production and recording of Horses was not a bed of roses. Producer John Cale and Patti were in constant conflict, an experience Patti has described (as a loyal Rimbaud follower) as “a season in hell.” She does admit that she was a naïve, difficult kid at the time; then again, she was dealing with a man with a known substance abuse problem and a history of wide swings in aesthetic perception. However difficult the process, the result is a beautiful enigma, along the lines of Blake’s dictum: “Without Contraries there is no progression.” Horses captures all the attitude, fire and tense edginess that would come to characterize punk, and perhaps the tension in the studio contributed to that.

While many have lauded Horses as one of the great albums in history and place it high on best-albums-of-all-time lists, Horses really confirms for me the absurdity of the entire ranking process. Ranking implies comparison, and Horses is simply incomparable, even within the boundaries of Patti Smith’s catalog. Nothing ever sounded like Horses, and I doubt that anything ever will. Love her or hate her, Patti Smith gave us a very rare gift with Horses, and while you may not care for what you hear, its breathtaking originality is undeniable.

The Guardian Interview with Patti Smith

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – The Definitive Collection – Classic Music Review

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We end the Motown Series with the folks who put the Mo in Motown.

In 1960, The Miracles’ “Shop Around” hit the record stores, eventually becoming the first million-selling hit for a tiny Detroit label called Tamla, one of what would become several subsidiary labels of Motown Records. Throughout the 14-year run with the “classic lineup,” The Miracles scored twenty-six top 40 hits and became Motown’s most covered group of all-time. They paved the way for all the great names who followed them, and their influence on artists in multiple genres is enormous.

The general consensus is that The Miracles were the best of the Motown groups—on another plane entirely. When they went on the road to do the Motown Revues along with the entire stable of Motown artists, The Miracles closed the show. Quincy Jones called the group “The Beethovens of the 20th Century” for their unique songwriting talents. It was unique that they wrote songs at all. Most of the other artists relied on Motown staff writers for their material; The Miracles composed most of their own.

The Definitive Collection does a good job covering the peak period in chronological order. The Ultimate Collection has seven more tracks but thoroughly mangles the sequence. Buy whichever tickles your fancy: it’s impossible to go wrong with The Miracles, especially with the classic lineup of Smokey Robinson, Claudette Robinson, Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore and guitarist Marv Tarplin. Backed largely by The Funk Brothers, The Miracles combined their gifts to produce some of the most distinctive songs in soul music history.

The group formed as The Five Chimes way back in 1955, changed their name to The Matadors (!) a year later, and finally settled on The Miracles in 1958. They had a couple of singles slip into the lower reaches of the Billboard 100, but real success eluded them until . . .

“Shop Around”: Released a few weeks before JFK’s election, this iconic hit was actually a remake of a version released in the Detroit area that drew quite a following. The rougher, rawer original is in a slightly slower tempo and the sax solo is more full-throated, like what you hear in early rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds marvelous after listening to the classic version, though I can understand how Berry Gordy felt the need to polish the edges for the general public. In the familiar version, Smokey’s lead vocal maintains its high-spirited enthusiasm but is a tad smoother; The Miracles’ vocal support is a bit clearer and mama’s advice seems more accessible. This is one of those great moments in history comparable to when George Martin told The Beatles to speed up “Please, Please Me.” The Miracles sound like a group who knows they’ve made their breakthrough hit: the performance bubbles with excitement.

I’ll Try Something New”: Motown was still far from the smooth-running machine of its peak years, so The Miracles didn’t have a follow-up hit in the tape box ready to go. They released five singles after “Shop Around” that failed to make the top 30; this was the last of the bunch. The harp in the intro does not bode well for those hoping for something soulful, and what we have here is a rather limp Latinesque love song notable only because it shows Smokey’s early passion for simile play, which he would again display in his composition, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” The Temptations’ first real hit. At this point the listening audience had to be wondering whether or not The Miracles would flame out and join the ranks of one-hit wonders who died while swimming towards the mainstream. Fortunately, Smokey recovered his mojo just in time, thanks to Sam Cooke.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”: Smokey heard Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” while on a trip to New York and, suitably and immediately inspired, wrote this song in his hotel room. With a stunning lack of foresight, this song become the B-side for a single led by “Happy Landing,” a song that could have easily been one of Sam Cooke’s happy-go-lucky tunes. The nation’s DJ’s staged a revolution and started playing “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” making it The Miracles’ second gold record.

Wow. Out of all the songs I’ve listened to during the Motown series, I played this one the most: I’d start my three-times-through bit and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” always got in the way of my progress. I’d go back and play this one song three, four, five times in a row to try to figure out exactly what they did to create a musical experience as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. You have to begin with the decision to perform the song as a duet, with Smokey taking the high-register melody and Bobby Rogers the low-register harmony. That brilliant decision reinforced the complexity of the opposing emotions expressed in the lyrics by giving them two distinct voices: one soaring and hopeful; the other gritty and realistic. The laid-back arrangement disguises a fascinating complexity where Marv Tarplin’s guitar extends the melodic line beyond the written melody while subtly dropping in repetitions of the motif; meanwhile, the horns extend the melodic line vertically in between their blues-tinged growls. The Miracles’ harmonies support Smokey’s amazing melodic path through the “I love you and all I want you to do” line and it all comes together like a set of magic threads. Smokey’s flowing vocal, marked by the glissandi expressing the shivering desire to be held, is dramatically mesmerizing; the effect of bursts of emotion expressed by the insertion of the please-squeeze responses is stunning and climactic. In the end, all of these choices combine to give us a song so unforgettably compelling that it’s no wonder that so many other singers simply had to cover it. Double wow.

“Mickey’s Monkey”: Dance crazes dominated the early 60’s, and given America’s rising obesity rates, it might be a good idea to bring them back. The Twist is great for getting rid of those love handles, guys! And ladies, The Mashed Potatoes can increase your ankle strength so you can wear those 4″ stilettos without falling on your face! I’ve always found the music to most dance songs really boring, with the exception of Little Eva’s “Locomotion” and this contribution from Holland-Dozier-Holland. I don’t know why anyone would want to do a dance that requires you to look like a monkey holding two bananas; perhaps it was an early form of penis envy. What I love about the song is the party atmosphere, greatly enhanced by the guest list of performers: Martha & The Vandellas, Mary Wilson, The Temptations and The Marvelettes. Smokey does a great job as host, and The Miracles actually don’t sound silly at all singing “Lum de lum de la aye!”

“I Like It Like That”: One of the 60’s fad phrases resulted in two songs with the same title: the one by Chris Kenner popularized by the Dave Clark Five, and this top 30 squeaker by The Miracles. At a much slower tempo than “Mickey’s Monkey,” the opening exhortation to get everybody to clap their hands doesn’t quite ring true. The song has more of a gospel feel than a get-up-and-shake-your-fanny feel, which may explain its weak showing on the charts: the balloon deflates too quickly.

“Ooo Baby Baby”: There are slow dance numbers and then there is “Ooh Baby Baby.” My partner and I tried this out a few times and always wound up extending our gyrations to the bedroom (okay, we are a pair of horny bitches, but hey, we’re not sex maniacs!). The tempo almost forces you into someone’s arms and the sweet harmonies of The Miracles bring out all the tenderness you feel for your sweetie. When you’re holding your honey oh-so-close, you don’t care a fig for the lyrics until they get to the chorus: ooo baby baby. What else is there to say when the scent of your lover sends chills up and down your spine and you feel yourself melting into the other’s body, so warm and so responsive to your every move? Ooo baby baby!

“The Tracks of My Tears”: Smokey liked opening songs with a little taste of guitar from Marv Tarplin, and I adore Marv’s brief thematic intro here: so gently played, so disarmingly subdued. As it turns out, what we’re hearing is the match that lit the flame for Smokey Robinson; the song that follows was inspired by Marv’s ear-catching little riff. I also cherish the doo-wop harmonies that follow, especially when Claudette Robinson comes in with remarkable clarity. This is the first of two “Pagliacci songs” in this collection, where Smokey places himself in the role of clown, the archetype of façade; the man with the painted smile to disguise his inner sadness. Smokey plays his part perfectly, his voice expressing both deep longing and the knowledge that the woman he wants will always remain just beyond his reach. I’ve always believed that his greatest lyrical gift was his refusal to settle for an “okay” word to complete a rhyme. Smokey, like Flaubert, was in constant search of le mot juste, but in his case his criteria demanded that he find the word that fit best into the story and blended best with the melodic line. You hear this most remarkably on the ringing internal and ending rhymes in the last verse:

Outside I’m masquerading inside my hope is fading
I’m just a clown since you put me down
My smile is my make up
I wear since my break-up with you

Despite its obvious brilliance, it took two years for the record to achieve gold status. “The Tracks of My Tears” is a marvelously-constructed song enhanced by a deliberate and focused arrangement that amplifies the emotional impact. Unforgettable!

“My Girl Has Gone”: Marv cues the group with a lovely intro on a 12-string that turns into a gentle counterpoint pattern to guide The Miracles through one of their best collective vocal performances. Claudette’s voice is especially pretty, and the solid, consistent bottom support from the men has a rather soothing, comforting effect. As good as Marv and The Funk Brothers were, I would love to hear an a cappella version of this track—Pete Moore apparently designed most of the group’s vocal arrangements, and it would be cool to study his choices in more detail. The intensely collaborative nature of this recording also stems from the act of creation: Smokey, Pete, Marv and Ronald White all get songwriting credit. This one’s often missed in recounting The Miracles’ list of contributions, but this is one of the great vocal performances by any group, anywhere, any time.

“Going to a Go-Go”: I love songs with a strong bottom, and the combination of Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass delivers the goods big time. One frequent Jamerson technique involved the use of two basses: an acoustic on the “ensemble” track and then a Precision Bass on a different track to add presence and depth. His personal precision was so extreme that you can’t spot the overdub, and on an instrument like the bass, where the low frequencies can expand like a mushroom cloud, that is one hell of a difficult feat. Of all The Miracle’s party songs, this one is my favorite—that relentless rhythm is so strongly punctuated that you can’t help but shake to the groove. The feel is almost as sexy as The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and you all know how that song shatters my innate qualities of self-possession and decorum.

“(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need”: Well, nobody’s perfect. Either Smokey’s pants were too tight or he was trying too hard to make this song work. His vocal defines the word histrionic: he is so over the emotional edge here that I find it painful to listen to this track. Fortunately for his reputation, he did not write this turkey: Holland-Dozier-Holland proved they weren’t perfect either.

“More Love”: They are now officially Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and appropriately enough, Smokey Robinson wrote a song that only he could have written: a deeply personal expression of love for his wife Claudette within the context of unimaginably tragic circumstances. Claudette Robinson had stopped touring with the group in 1964 after a series of miscarriages; eventually she would have eight miscarriages, including a set of stillborn twins. Repeating that extreme cycle of hope and crushing disappointment once would be more than enough for any human being, but eight times . . . I don’t think I could have survived it, emotionally or physically. After one of the miscarriages, Claudette apologized to Smokey for letting him down, and he wrote this song for her to free her from any guilt and express his unconditional love for her. Smokey delivers the vocal with what I can only describe as sweet urgency: his voice expresses a deep concern that Claudette could ever feel that way and he is insistent on filling her soul with healing love. “More Love” is a beautiful expression of genuine concern for another, and Smokey Robinson’s ability to transform a personal tragedy into a song that speaks to our higher natures is deeply appreciated.

“The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”: Marv opens this first single under the new moniker in a guitar style that sounds more folk rock than soul. The soul elements appear as the song proceeds, but Marv is there in the background and supplying the fills to give this track a special feel and flavor. The Miracles’ spot harmonies are gentle and very pleasing to the ear, and Smokey negotiates the melody with understated brilliance. One of the more melancholy songs in their catalogue, it’s also one of the loveliest, more of a golden autumn song than a pink-blossom spring song.

“I Second That Emotion”: Smokey had a gift for turning cliché phrases into catchy hooks, and when combined with a flowing melody with great vertical movement, a nice, easy groove and The Miracles spot-on harmonies, you have one of the strongest and most memorable songs in their catalogue. Jamerson is all over the fretboard on this song, as is guitarist Marv Taplin, and the combination counterpoint is simply fabulous. The punctuated moment of syncopation that breaks up the chorus is one of those intuitive-emotional choices that may not fit the strict logic of a tune but heightens the interest and the excitement. Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks later teamed up for their own version of this song, but their version falls far short of the original. 

“Yester Love”: In contrast to his work with The Supremes, James Jamerson’s work with The Miracles is generally more inventive and exciting, and this relatively minor song in the catalog would have made a great audition tape for Jamerson (not that he ever needed one, given his reputation in the music business). Marv Tarplin could have used his performance in a similar way, filling the space with quick and nimbly played fills with a blues flavor. Smokey’s love for word play is evident in the title, and I’m a little surprised that this song didn’t do any better than #31. The Miracles are great as usual, the song moves very well . . . hell, I can’t explain it.

“Special Occasion”: Smokey creates a cornucopia of similes as he searches for the perfect analogy to the experience of a constantly exciting lover. Actually, I think his best lines in this song are metaphor-free:

 . . .  and it’s hard to explain
How the same old touch from the same old hand
Can make me feel like a different man
I just can’t understand
But every time you touch me
It’s a real special occasion

The song is competently played but the arrangement is a bit too celebratory and the joyful feel of the song sucks the sexiness out of the lyrics.

“Baby, Baby Don’t Cry”: I’m immediately turned off by the spoken word intro, but I grit my teeth and appreciate James Jamerson’s superb bass or Marv’s more noticeable guitar licks . . . then Smokey starts speaking again. I’ve never liked that maneuver; it always feel like an interruption to me, and the truth is, most popular vocalists don’t have the acting skills to pull off the intended dramatic effect. Apparently the listening public didn’t mind the intrusions, as the song was a top 10 hit. Doesn’t do dick for me.

“Doggone Right”: At this point in his career, Smokey is seriously considering retirement, longing to become a family man and have a regular commute for a change. Here he follows a typical pattern of making a cliché phrase the basis of a pop song and the effort falls flat. It feels like he’s thinking of putting his feet up on that big VP desk of his and shouting a few orders into the dictaphone. A competent performance, but lacking fire.

“The Tears of a Clown”: There are several instances in popular music history when a song that was ignored on release becomes a hit after the performers have forgotten all about it. “Time of the Season” is a good example (The Zombies had broken up by the time it made its splash); another is the resurrection of “Got To Get You into My Life” during the disco era, ten years after Revolver. “Tears of a Clown” was a Stevie Wonder-Hank Cosby musical composition to which Smokey added the lyrics. The song made its way into obscurity on the 1967 album Make It Happen. The story is that Motown England (you can never control those overseas operations, as I know all too well, being the uncontrollable one!) was short of material, pulled it out of the scrapheap of history and made it a UK single. BOOM! #1! Motown America followed suit and BOOM! #1! Smokey then delayed his retirement for another two years and The Miracles hit the road in support of their unexpected success.

If you’re befuddled that the song languished in obscurity in the first place, join the club. This is clearly one of The Miracles’ best efforts, one of Smokey’s best set of lyrics (partially borrowed from a previous composition, “My Smile Is Just a Frown”) and one of the most exciting and innovative arrangements in their catalogue. James Jamerson’s bass work here is pure magic, beautifully alternating between almost harmonic runs and single-note picking to intensity the builds. Adding the horribly neglected bassoon to the mix gives the track a one-of-a-kind flavor, and the punctuation in the groove seems closer to rock ‘n’ roll than soul. Nothing like ending a compilation on a strong note!

My everlasting impression of The Miracles is that when it came time to make music, they were the ultimate pros. They took great care with every arrangement and each executed their parts with commitment and professionalism. In a world where some elitists consider sloppily played, melodically-challenged records an advanced art form, it’s so very wonderful to spend some time listening to genuine musicians who refused to settle for sloppy. The discipline they displayed did not drain the life, emotion or excitement from their work, but made it possible to play with intentionality and bring those spirit-lifting facets of music to the fore. The Miracles were simply too good, too professional, too committed to their music to make excuses and go sloppy. Whatever happens to music in the future, people will always return to groups like The Miracles to hear how real professionals make real music.

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